The Burning of Beverly Marsh

It Chapter Two (2019)

It Chapter Two (2019) | Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
On a gravel road about 3 miles east of Ames, Iowa, there is an unmarked lot. That’s a gentle way of saying “glorified ditch;” in Ames, you’re raised to compensate. The lot is half of the size of a basketball court and surrounded by rows of corn stalks that jut from the dirt like teeth on a comb. “The Parking Lot of Solitude,” we called it. I can’t find it now, trying to click my way back on Google Maps, but I think if I turned the key in the ignition and rolled the windows down I’d be able to follow the scent straight from my apartment in Los Angeles to the source. The smell of burning.

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“Your hair is winter fire, January embers,” Beverly Marsh reads out in It Chapter Two. “My heart burns there, too.” She’s a grown woman now, 27 years removed from the girl she was when she received the postcard. There’s no return address, but we all know who it’s from. On-screen, past and present knead together: look, Beverly is a child who runs with the boys and tries to stay alive. Blink, she’s near 40, still running, less alive. Pining for the same boys, for when they were all beautiful and stupid and feral with youth.

My friends and I were like that by senior year of high school—seven bored, opinionated girls, seven pairs of dirty sneakers by the front door, seven hearts living in all the wrong places. While the bullied leads of the It franchise banded together to escape middle school martyrdom, something less articulate twisted our lives around one another. Because I was the last to join, just a year before we all left for college, I felt like an anthropologist sent to observe the rituals of the Iowan teen. They put mascara on their bottom lashes and took sides in every fight and skipped out on prom because yeesh, been there, done that. I tried my best to keep up. If I’m honest, I don’t think Beverly Marsh would’ve liked us very much.

Still, I watch her the same way I studied them. It’s hard to look away from Beverly in Chapter 2 regardless. There’s Jessica Chastain’s North-Star magnetism, sure, and the fiery hair, definitely, but mostly because she’s the only she. It’s not unusual to see a token girl thrown into the boys’ club, especially in blockbuster franchise features. It’s unusual to feel like her story easily eclipses theirs, even with equal screentime dutifully allotted. It’s six against one, but Beverly holds her own.

The movie calls these estranged friends back to Derry, 27 years after the events of It. They convene to face the clown-shaped menace they defeated once already, despite their collective amnesia surrounding the things they did to It and to each other. You’d think friendship like that makes them not-Losers by definition. But Beverly doesn’t have them the way they have her.

The adolescent Beverly, played in flashbacks by Sophia Lillis, is ebullient: both cheerful and boiling, from the French bouillir, to boil. In It Chapter One she bakes in the sun after a swim, aware but unconcerned by her bare skin while her six best friends sit two feet away and wonder, with prepubescent interest, what it would be like to pin her down.

Her own father tries later in the film. She crushes his skull with the lid of the toilet tank.

Like the town of Derry itself, It Chapter 2 indulges in these cycles of tragedy, violence, and catharsis. Director Andy Muschietti plucks backstories for each boy from Stephen King’s novel and takes pains to twist the knife: Mike’s parents go from loving farmers to addicted to dead; Eddie’s overbearing mother turns full Munchausen syndrome by proxy; Richie is given a new implied sexuality that closets him in a town historically plagued by hate crimes. Always the odd one out, Beverly’s history of abuse at the hands of her father and husband needs no fine tuning. The chilling moments in her story don’t come from seeing how far the men in her life go to control her, but from knowing with utter clarity how far these men go in the real world.

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It Chapter Two (2019) | Warner Bros. Pictures

I remember a steady whine of anxiety scoring every night we spent in the Parking Lot of Solitude. Most of the time we were out past curfew in a landscape so flat the glare of headlights was visible for miles, leaving us long minutes to wonder if the approaching car was a cop or some couple looking to park. Any other worries were purely interpersonal, because at that age my friendships were all-consuming and not always in a fun way. I didn’t start watching horror movies until after college so I didn’t know how to be scared of monsters in the dark fields. I wasn’t interested in fictional terror. The study of oncoming womanhood was terror enough.

Even without a diet of horror flicks, I learned what to be afraid of and why it was my fault. Assault was the obvious first, followed by aging past 35 or menstruation (depending on the day). In Chapter 2, Muschietti surrounds Beverly with the image of floods, sending waves of water and blood through the sewers as she leaves her abusive husband, later trapping her in a bathroom stall to flail in a rising tide of thick red liquid. In one of Beverly’s solo interactions with Pennywise the Clown, he takes the shape of a decaying old woman to attack her. The conventions of Hollywood make it clear: here is what women should fear.

From one angle, these scenes satisfy tropes of the genre and Chastain plays them well, screaming when she’s asked to scream. Where she and Lillis both shine is in scenes when Beverly brushes against fears that wouldn’t hold up on a police report. Beverly’s father spraying her in the heavy scent of her dead mother’s perfume. Kissing her childhood crush, bruises from her husband on her wrists. Locking the door of the bathroom as her father rages against it; having to return to that apartment decades later and paste on a smile for the new tenant.

All of my friends have at least one story like this. Maybe there wasn’t a bruise, but someone held on too tight for too long and now we don’t say his name anymore, we just feel our hearts pounding in a way that’s starting to feel less like fear and more like rage. When Lillis and Chastain start boiling, It gets at something closer to truth, something that makes the deluges of water and blood feel like the manifestation of inevitabilities. By the time you feel it lapping at your ankles there is no turning back.

During the fall of my freshman year at college, The New York Times published an article that one in four undergraduate women will most likely experience sexual assault during their time in university. I wondered back then, idly, which of the seven of us would fill out that statistic in the next four years, so far from home and one another. Two, at least. Maybe more.

In the Netflix series The End of The F***ing World, a girl named Alyssa tries to explain what happens after the indefinable violations so many women experience, crossed boundaries that are difficult to articulate and harder to exorcise because of it. Like Beverly, Alyssa evaded an attempted sexual assault, a flashbulb of action that leaves her pinned underneath a grown man as he bleeds out onto her white T-shirt. Tragedy, violence, catharsis. At what cost? Even though she escaped every woman’s nightmare, she stepped into a different one. Alyssa can shed T-shirts and memories and relationships, but she can’t shed her own self, the person these things happened to.

“I’ll always be in that house,” Alyssa says. “I’ll always be in that room.”

When she said those lines, I couldn’t catch my breath. And when Beverly picked up the inciting phone call from Mike at the beginning of It Chapter 2, I heard it again. Twenty-seven years passed and she’s still in that sewer. Supernatural amnesia may have given her a reprieve, but she’s still down there.

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It Chapter Two (2019) | Warner Bros. Pictures

It was pitch black when we all rumbled into the parking lot this time, or maybe it was still afternoon; something in the air felt barefaced and brash. My friend brandished her prize: a sweatshirt left behind by a newly ex-ed boyfriend. It was already covered in dirt, because before leaving her driveway, we lined up in the cul de sac and watched her run it over with her car.

Someone gathered sticks from the edges of the parking lot, someone got matches. There might’ve been a petite can of lighter fluid. I remember setting the entire box of matches on fire, three hundred catching at once in a solar flare. Somehow the sweatshirt burned and smoked, the tallest thing for miles besides our shadows in the dirt.

Truthfully, I can’t remember how we lit that fire. The day can be whatever I need. I can change the dialogue, alter the setting, lower the sun. The seven of us can be as closely knit as I want us to be. This is the needling insecurity It Chapter Two can’t quite nail down, despite the source material’s obsession with memory. Rather than probing the human fallibility of its heroes’ recollections, the film stutters through a town frozen in time, monsters that don’t die, friendships snagged on a freeze frame. Instead of preying on our fear of forgetting, It inadvertently becomes a cautionary tale of what happens when things stay the same.

Lucky for me (or maybe not) I haven’t been to the Parking Lot in close to seven years. When I think back to those sweaty, hazy days, I can let stale smoke hide the outline of the room we’ll always be in as women, living our own stories in a world directed by men. I fear the wind. I fear the handful of memories I can call up with perfect clarity. If I were transported to Derry, It wouldn’t appear as a killer clown or deluge of blood. It would be clear skies and a breeze.

There was no shortage of enthralling female protagonists in 2019, many of them in films much more engaging than It Chapter Two. Even so, Beverly Marsh is the one I keep coming back to as winter closes in, even though it’s not really winter in Los Angeles. I sleep with the fan on and wait for rain and dream about the windmill farms a few miles from the Parking Lot, their silent white blades spinning in the dark. I wake up burning.